Arizona had a problem. The people showing up at our local board meetings were anti-mask and anti-vaccine. Meanwhile, other parents had stopped showing up to the meetings because they felt frustrated and fearful of speaking up at all. Getting yelled at, hooted out, called a liar, and threatened will do that to you. It was starting to feel like the 2020 election all over again. And yet for all of the rancor, I knew that most parents felt the way I did: desperate to get their kids back to school as safely as possible.
My friend and fellow parent advocate Jessica Wani and I hatched a plan, with the help of some great Arizona healthcare workers to provide grounding in science and data. We’d begin collecting signatures from our fellow Arizonans to put pressure on the state government, local government and school boards, including as many representatives from the medical community as we could get. Even as our governor doubled and tripled down on his extreme anti-mask position, we were determined to demonstrate that when it comes to common sense safety measures in schools, public opinion is on our side.
We started small, with a single google form that people could easily sign, then we began to work on elected officials: boards of supervisors, city councilors, mayors, legislators—we reached out to all of them. And we kept our efforts intentionally non-partisan, making a point of not asking signers about their political affiliation. Next our scrappy team reached out to representatives of the medical community, including pediatricians, family doctors and public health experts.The number of signers quickly grew. By the time we put out our first newsletter, filled with the latest info about health and safety protocols in schools, we were up to 4,000 people.
The puzzle pieces began to fall into place. As we reached out to medical experts, we also encouraged them to raise their voices. And they did. Doctors and other medical professionals started writing their own letters, reporting on what they were seeing on the ground in real time, as hospitals in Arizona began to fill with COVID patients. They also urged their own colleagues to get involved and help make the case for vaccines, masking and social distancing in schools.
As the voices demanding school safety protocols got louder, the media started paying attention. So we got proactive. We launched a website, expanded our organizing tools on social media, launched a newsletter, and organized a virtual event called Let’s Unite for Public Health and Safe Schools featuring medical professionals who could testify about the latest COVID research and what was really happening in Arizona. We invited journalists and elected officials, and the event quickly got so big that media had to submit questions. Our virtual event was a raging success, garnering national and local news coverage. And by putting the event up on Youtube and creating video clips of the doctors’ testimony, we’ve been able to reach an even bigger audience.
Our push back against the Arizona GOP’s extreme politics around masks and other safety measures is also having an impact. After conservative lawmakers inserted an anti-mask mandate into the state budget, making it retroactive from July, members of our group joined a lawsuit on the grounds that the law violated our state’s constitutional requirement that any law have a single subject, and not go into effect for 90 days to allow a challenge a new law via the referendum process. When a judge ruled on another case that the anti-mask law doesn’t take effect until the end of September, an avalanche of districts announced mask mandates.
While I’ve been amazed at the response we’ve gotten, I have no illusions about what our growing group is up against. COVID has given our governor and the AZ GOP yet another opportunity to try to dismantle public education in Arizona. That’s why Governor Ducey is offering families vouchers to leave schools with public health mandates.
Still, our coalition keeps growing. What started with Maricopa County and Tucson has now spread to Yuma, Flagstaff and the rest of the state. Parents, community members, taxpayers, teachers, politicians, grandparents, Republicans, Democrats and Independents are all rallying behind the idea that schools should do whatever it takes to keep kids safe. And communities around the state are now replicating our efforts, starting their own petitions and starting local Right 2 Safe Schools parent groups in their own districts. Slowly but surely, we’re moving the needle on public opinion in Arizona.
Here is our suggested message:
Our first priority and responsibility should be to keep Arizona’s children safe. Please stop the political posturing and let our local school boards and medical experts decide safety measures in schools. Thank you.